I think it was the early 2000’s when the movie Anger Management came out.  It was about a group of famously angry men who were court-ordered to take group therapy to deal with their anger.  It wasn’t a very good movie, but I went to see it because our basketball coach, Bobby Knight, was a supporting character in the movie.  And Coach Knight, of course, is known for his championship teams and his short fuse on the court.

I bring this up because our gospel today shows Jesus in a rare moment of emotional display.  It’s clear that Jesus is acting in anger when he cleanses the Temple of the moneychangers and the merchants.  But there’s a difference in the anger that Jesus shows in the gospels and the type of anger we see in Bobby Knight, Adam Sandler, and Jack Nicholson.

On Anger

Anger is a passion, which is like an emotion.  We experience anger when we perceive an injustice has been done.  We perceive that something is not fair, and the normal reaction is to be angry.  But there are different types of anger, and here is where we should make a distinction.

First, there is what I’ll call malicious anger.  This is the type of anger that festers and turns into resentment, or “holding a grudge.”  When we hold grudges, we choose not to forgive.  We choose not to resolve the injustice.We have to be careful, because this anger is seductive.  It can take over us.  It can even become addictive.  This is a sinful anger, and so it is not the anger that Jesus displays in the gospel.

Then there is what we call righteous anger.  This is the type of anger we see from Jesus in the gospel reading today, when he drove the moneychangers out of the temple.  Righteous anger can be a useful thing.  When we see an injustice in society, our emotional response can drive us to do something about it.  We can work to correct an injustice by prayer, by speaking up for the weak or the marginalized, by organizing efforts to help those in need.

Why, then, does Jesus cleanse the Temple in his righteous anger?  Jesus is calling us to a deeper, truer form of discipleship.  The gospel writer, John, shows us this call in a very subtle way.  It’s very hard to detect his subtlety in English because it’s almost completely lost in translation.  To see what Jesus is saying here, we have to look at the original Greek.

A Deeper Discipleship

In the Gospel, Jesus uses three different words for “temple.”

  • hieron – Temple Area[1]
  • oikos – House[2]
  • naòn – Sanctuary/Holy of Holies[3]

By his ordering of these three words, he is zooming in on the heart of worship.  This is not by accident.  The hidden message that John is communicating in this gospel passage is that Jesus is calling his disciples out of a shallow worship and into a deeper worship.  With the old form of worship by animal sacrifice, the people didn’t have to have any skin in the game; the animal did, but not the one offering it.  This shallow worship led the Jews to a perfunctory observance of the law without a conversion of heart.  Jesus calls his disciples to a deeper worship.  Instead of outwardly pious acts that are empty of meaning, he calls us to worship in spirit and truth—a worship that necessarily involves a spirit of conversion, so that our exterior acts of piety are motivated by a true interior piety.

By narrowing our focus from the Temple area as a whole to the Temple building to the Holy of Holies, Jesus invites the casual Christian to become an intentional disciple.  He invites the lukewarm to be blazing hot.  But Jesus also recognizes that we get there in stages.

Firm but Gentle

Jesus drives out the rugged oxen with a whip, but he tells the merchants to take the doves away.  You see, the doves were caged and could not fly away on their own; they would have been harmed in the overturning of the tables.  This shows us that Jesus had a great zeal for his Father’s house, but he did not cause harm to the vulnerable and the weak.  He has compassion and patience on those who earnestly seek him, yet bring their own baggage and woundedness with them.  We, too, must temper our zeal with concern for those whose faith is weak, for an over-zealousness (viz. beating someone over the head with the truth) makes us come off as a jerk.

What kind of disciple are you?

We can also take a lesson from the types of animals that are driven out of the Temple, because each symbolizes a different type of Christian.

  • They are slow-moving, generally non-excitable creatures.  They are strong, but can be stubborn and downright slothful.  The oxen symbolize those Christians who display these same characteristics.  They are disinterested in movement or anything that might require them to change.  They lack zeal and enthusiasm.
  • They are the most irrational of mammals, following blindly, even into danger.  They move in a herd and don’t think for themselves.  The sheep, in this case, represent those Christians who don’t engage their intellect, but simply follow the crowd.  They lack self-confidence, and so get swept into whatever is popular for the moment or into morally dangerous situations.
  • They are opportunistic scavengers, swooping in when they think they see something attractive to eat.  Then, when some perceived danger comes close, they turn skittish and fly away.  These are the Christians who are initially attracted to the parish dinner, some new program, or some new pastor, but when it gets inconvenient or challenging, they fly away.

What do these three animals have in common?  They are characteristically passive.  They are not eager, reflective, or courageous.  Remember, when the disciples saw that Jesus had driven the animals out of the Temple, “they recalled the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me.[4]It is zeal for God and his Kingdom that Jesus showed in the Temple that day, and it is zealous disciples that he desires today.  The stubborn/slothful, the unreflective, the flighty/flakey disciples are no disciples at all.  The zealous disciple is one who is intentional in his relationship with God.  The intentional disciple takes charge of his/her spiritual journey and pursues the virtues.  Finally, the intentional disciple makes more disciples.  In making more disciples, he/she is a fruitful participant in the mission of the Church.

Cleansing our Temples

This passage, taken with the first reading, is also a reminder to take a moment this Lent to cleanse our own Temples. It is almost as if the Lectionary is pleading with each of us to make it to confession!

The first reading is the Ten Commandments, which offer a great way to examine our consciences before making a confession.  But then, there’s the subtle reminders in the gospel itself.  Notice that Jesus cleanses the Temple when “the Passover of the Jews was near.”[5]  Basically, it was the Jewish equivalent of our Lenten season.

Then there’s that key phrase that John narrates to us: “[Jesus] was speaking of the temple of his body.”[6]  Here, Jesus purposefully refers to his own body as a temple, the place where God dwells.  Elsewhere in the New Testament, St. Paul expands on this notion, saying that the body of Christ is the Church.  Therefore, the dwelling place of God is within his very people, you and me.  And the temple needs to be cleansed from time to time.  That’s why Jesus gave his priests the power to forgive sins, the sacrament of penance.  Think of it as a vacuum cleaner for the soul.

By identifying and addressing the obstacles to growth in discipleship, we are able to become more fully the people God desires us to be—Living Sanctuaries of His Presence in the world.

Jesus, the zealous yet compassionate Lord is calling us closer to himself.  Let us continue to worship him in this Mass in spirit and truth.

[1] cf. John 2:14,15

[2] cf. John 2:16,17

[3] cf. John 2:19,20,21

[4] John 2:17

[5] John 2:13

[6] John 2:21